Mary Coin

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Overview

*An NPR Best Book of 2013*
*A BBC Best Book of 2013*
 
In her first novel since The God of War, the critically acclaimed author Marisa Silver takes Dorothea Lange?s ?Migrant Mother? photograph as inspiration for a breathtaking reinvention?a story of two women, one famous and one forgotten, and of the remarkable legacy of their chance encounter.

In 1936, a young mother ...

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Mary Coin: A Novel

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Overview

*An NPR Best Book of 2013*
*A BBC Best Book of 2013*
 
In her first novel since The God of War, the critically acclaimed author Marisa Silver takes Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph as inspiration for a breathtaking reinvention—a story of two women, one famous and one forgotten, and of the remarkable legacy of their chance encounter.

In 1936, a young mother resting by the side of a road in Central California is spontaneously photographed by a woman documenting the migrant laborers who have taken to America’s farms in search of work. Little personal information is exchanged, and neither woman has any way of knowing that they have produced what will become the most iconic image of the Great Depression.

Three vibrant characters anchor the narrative of Mary Coin. Mary, the migrant mother herself, who emerges as a woman with deep reserves of courage and nerve, with private passions and carefully-guarded secrets. Vera Dare, the photographer wrestling with creative ambition who makes the choice to leave her children in order to pursue her work. And Walker Dodge, a present-day professor of cultural history, who discovers a family mystery embedded in the picture. In luminous, exquisitely rendered prose, Silver creates an extraordinary tale from a brief moment in history, and reminds us that although a great photograph can capture the essence of a moment, it only scratches the surface of a life.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Antoine Wilson
As we follow Mary from her childhood in Oklahoma to California through a series of births and deaths and couplings, we experience a portrait of poverty not through the dreary accumulation of gritty detail, but via a series of direct shots to the heart. Silver…writes with an unadorned impressionism that never feels self-conscious or fussy. And she handles the passage of time—one of the central themes of Mary Coin, photographs stopping time as they do—so deftly it feels like magic. Part of what makes this novel so good is Silver's unwillingness to write facts free of the people living through them…History is not a succession of icons or frozen moments but of messy lives lived, of people doing what they can with what they've got. Therein lies the power of this novel, and the Novel; Silver wields it here with grace and devastating effectiveness.
Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Three characters whose lives span 90 years form the core of Silver's gorgeous third novel (after The God of War). Social historian Walker Dodge, as he sorts through the last items of his nearly empty childhood home, discovers a familial link to a famous photograph. Here, a real-life photo taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936 becomes a fictional photo taken by Vera Dare of Mary Coin. Silver fills in the untold story behind Lange's photo by revealing Vera and Mary's lives in vivid detail. Neither woman can reconcile herself with the Depression-era photo, yet they are intimately linked: each has children, husbands who leave them, and battles with cancer. This narrative of mid-century hope, loss, and disenchantment is both universal and deeply personal. Mary's problem with the truth of history and the stories told through objects leads her to make the hardest decision of her life, one confronted by Walker 75 years later. Silver has managed the difficult task of fleshing out history without glossing over its ugly truths. With writing that is sensual and rich, she shines a light on the parts of personal history not shared and stops time without destroying the moment. Agent: Henry Dunow; Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews
The fictionalized lives of photographer Dorothea Lange and the Native American farm worker behind her famous Depression-era portrait "Migrant Mother." While adhering closely to the facts of the real women's lives, Silver (The God of War, 2008, etc.) renames them--Lange becomes Vera Dare; her subject, Florence Owens Thompson, becomes Mary Coin--and frames their stories within a wholly fictional conceit: Social historian Walker Dodge is grappling with his role as a divorced father when he begins researching the history of his family, successful California fruit growers, after the death of his uncommunicative father. Walker, who coincidentally teaches college students how to look at photographs, opens and closes the novel in 2011, but the real focus is on the two women. Mary grows up on an Oklahoma farm, raised by her tough but loving Cherokee mother after her alcoholic white father's death. At 17, she marries Toby Coin, and they head to California where he works in sawmills and she has one baby after another. By 1929, a fire has burned down the mill and their home. After Toby dies, Mary picks fruit to support her children. After an affair with a farm owner's son, she has another baby that she is nursing near her broken-down car the day in 1936 when Vera Dare takes her picture. Vera, who still limps from the polio she suffered as a child, has spent the 1920s in San Francisco as a society photographer. Her financial security has collapsed by the early 1930s, along with her marriage to a flamboyant, womanizing painter. By the time she runs across Mary, Vera has farmed out her two sons to travel the countryside taking pictures to document rural poverty for FDR's Resettlement Administration. When she photographs Mary, Vera has no idea the image will take on a life of its own. Walker's tacked-on connection to the photograph seems a calculated attempt to add sexual intrigue to what is otherwise a disappointingly plodding account that sheds no new light on either the photographer or her subject.
Library Journal
Dorthea Lange's legendary photograph of an unknown migrant mother, taken at the height of the Great Depression, is the inspiration for Silver's (The God of War) superb new novel. The titular character is a reimagining of this Native American mother of seven, with the memorable face that came to symbolize American poverty. Mary, along with Vera Dare, a strong-minded photographer and polio survivor who is forced to abandon her own children, and Walker Dodge, a modern-day history professor with a surprising link to the celebrated photograph, are the mesmerizing novel's three central characters. Silver's acute observations and understated style are evident here as are her matter-of-fact, unapologetic characters. "You'll know who you are when you start losing things," declares one. With only a few known facts of the woman in Lange's photograph, Silver has crafted a highly imaginative story that grabs the reader and won't let go. VERDICT A must-read for Silver fans that is sure to win over many new followers; the acclaimed author's best work to date.—Lisa Block, Atlanta, GA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399160707
  • Publisher: Blue Rider Press
  • Publication date: 3/7/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 404,430
  • Product dimensions: 6.56 (w) x 9.16 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Marisa Silver

Marisa Silver is the author of the novels The God of War (a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist) and No Direction Home; and two story collections, Alone With You and Babe in Paradise (a New York Times Notable Book and Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year). She lives in Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt

At first she thought someone had released a flock of birds into the room. The museum gallery whispered with the sound of wings and flight and she thought of the starlings wheeling through the flat Oklahoma sky, a solid flag of them waving in the currents of a wind. Was that seventy years ago? More?...
 
A child’s cry broke through. Mary, always keen to a child’s distress, turned towards the sound. And there, across the room, hung the familiar charcoal gray shapes of the image that shadowed her life….
 
The gallery had grown quieter and, for a moment, Mary was alone with the picture. She saw her reflection in the glass. There they were. Two women named Mary Coin. If they met on the street in the high heat of a summer’s afternoon, they would be polite in the old fashioned way to show they meant one another no harm. “Hello,” they would say in passing. “My, but isn’t it a wretched day?”

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Interviews & Essays

Working Woman: Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Marisa Silver

You can stare at that photo of Florence Owens Thompson, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936, for hours. It's like a conversation that way. Or, you can let the years pass and go back to it and notice something different every time. Today, for example, this viewer stares at the cover of Marisa Silver's novel Mary Coin and notices the bowl-shaped haircut of the child whose head rests on Thompson's shoulder as he looks away from the camera. Also that Thompson looks more than a little bit like Silver herself; northern ancestry, high cheekbones, Finnish eyes, and a slightly worried expression. Or is she a female Zelig — Everywoman?

"Not me!" Silver says. "She looks like my grandmother!" A promising film director in her twenties, an MFA student and new mother in her thirties, and a full-fledged writer with three (now four) novels and a short story collection by fifty-two, the author admits that she "chose Mary Coin because I recognized something in Florence Thompson's face. Those two children squeezed into the frame accentuate her acute responsibility for their lives." She was struck, she says, by Thompson's beauty, and by her duress. "I recognized her as a mother."

Silver had seen the photograph many times in books, but it wasn't until she saw it in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit several years ago that she realized how many mysteries were embedded in it. A little tag to the right of the photo explained that Thompson had not revealed who she was — even after the photo had become an iconic image of the Depression and sealed Lange's fame — until she was on her deathbed. Why? Silver wondered. Shame? Embarrassment?

Silver's filmmaker beginnings came into play: This was a photograph inside a documentary. Who was the maker? What did the photographer see in that face? Silver says that her novels always begin with a character. It wasn't until she found herself naming these characters — the photographer, Vera Dare, the subject, Mary Coin — that she began to see the novel unfold.

Silver moved to California in her twenties from the East Coast: "Everything was so new for me; I took it all in on an intellectual but also an emotional level. I saw the complications of the California dream. I saw how people's lives were and are affected by the land and what happens to the land. I saw for the first time what a profound effect land has on characters." But Silver balks at terms like "California writer" and "California novel." "California eludes us all," she laughs. "It defies easy explanation."

Silver says that while she is respectful of the real lives her characters are based upon, she was not interested in writing a biography. "I wanted to create new lives, to invent their feelings and thoughts." In this effort, the author was inspired by the work of E. L. Doctorow, whose novels lay their foundations in fact. Walker, a character in the novel who teaches the Art of the Image, embodies Silver's impulse to create history from ephemera. "This is not a class about looking," he tells his students. "You look away and you stop thinking, you stop imagining?. This is a class about seeing. And seeing is something else altogether. Seeing is about looking past surfaces of predetermined historic and aesthetic values. Seeing is about being brave enough to say: This unimportant image or piece of information that no one cares about? Well, there is a story here, too, and I'm going to find out what it is." Some of the mysteries embedded in the photograph contain clues that fill in blanks in Walker's family history.

Silver's novels (The God of War, No Direction Home) and her stories (Alone with You, Babe in Paradise) contain a hidden drive, a feeling of something at stake, at risk. Like Walker, she is personally invested in uncovering some truth by telling stories. Social justice, working people, single mothers appear in all of her books, but she insists that she does not set out to debate political ideas or grandstand on issues. In Mary Coin, the life of the migrant laborer in Depression-era America is an important part of the book. "I'm interested in people who work," Silver says simply. "People without a lot of choice; people who lives with high stakes, alongside a constant risk of failure."

This brings us to the subject of teenagers, since both of us have them. Silver's two boys are nineteen and sixteen. "The lives of teenagers seem so precarious," she laughs. "There is that fabulous moment of trying to seize one's personality-terrifying?. I remember it-and I empathize deeply with people on the receiving end of their stress!" Do her boys read her books? No, Silver says. "But they are super proud of me — a mother who tells stories! I think they know that what I write has a personal piece, too, something in flagrante?. That's the part they'd rather not read!" —Susan Salter Reynolds (March 7, 2013)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 20 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 20 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2013

    Best book I have read all year. Beautiful writing and great insi

    Best book I have read all year. Beautiful writing and great insight into her characters and the hardship of life in the Depression.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2013

    Left wanting more.

    While I was engrosssed with the story and its development, I was disappointed that it seemed to end suddenly and without a satisfactory resolution for the modern characters. Then again, maybe that is the grand theme: life is often messy annd without clean edges.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 5, 2013

    A Great Story

    The story is part fiction but the setting and events were true. It tells the true story of the depression and how one woman captures this truth in pictures. Very well written.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2013

    3 1/2 stars

    Interesting inspiration for the story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2013

    Highly recommended!

    This book is beautifully written. It describes with such intensity the lives of the two women involved and the period in which it was written. I highly recommend this fabulous book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2013

    My all time favorite

    I have always loved the cover picture. Silver created vivid characters and pulled me into the world of the people migrating west during the time of the dust bowl. My great-grandmother was part of this migration. She spoke little of the hard times but the shame of poverty never left. I could not put the book down and the images have stayed strong.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2013

    Even though I enjoyed the book tremendously as a work of fiction

    Even though I enjoyed the book tremendously as a work of fiction. I am a historian of the 1930's and everything Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange, and the Migrant Mother. I know the Dixon family personally as well as Florence Owens Thompson's family since 1990 because of my research. But I do recommend it as a great read. But, it is fiction and most of the information on Migrant Mother herself and her grandson who does exist is not completely accurate. There are good history books around if you want the facts. I really recommend that you read this book and then if interested look for books under migrant mother or Dorothea Lange. Great Read

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2013

    Very well done

    Great story ,well written

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2013

    Exposing the fiction of "truth"

    Beautifully crafted, a story built on an iconic image, but with some deep reflections about history in general. I loved it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2013

    Different - in a good way.

    Three main characters - all have interesting lives. Loved reading about the depression era. Overall an A+++ job.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2013

    Highly Recommended

    An emotional read!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2013

    Marvelous Writing

    I loved everything about this book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2014

    Mary c C MARY COIN

    Pack your bags for a trip back to a time when the most you could hope for is some form of a roof for your head and a meager wage to feed your family. A period in our history that we have compacted into a single word, Depression. Marissa Silver has painted an all to true picture of the lives of her characters, how their paths crossed and how their chance meetings effected the lifes of their familes more than 60 years later. If you have ever found yourself in your grandmother's attic digging through old pictures and wondering not only who the person or persons that will be forever frozen in this one moment may be, but what was their life like and how their choices shaped the path that brought you to this very second..then this book is for you!

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  • Posted December 27, 2013

    Can't get a readable book

    Unfortunately I wanted to give this book as a present, but could not find one without malformed pages.

    And so, I cannot comment on the story itself.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2013

    Good!

    The person who makes it sells it the person who buys it doesnt use it and the person who uses it doesnt know what it is. What is it?

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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